State set for health care change

Published 6:41 pm Sunday, September 15, 2013

Minnesota is about to embrace the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.

Nearly all U.S. residents will be required to have health insurance when coverage begins Jan. 1. MNsure, the state’s version of President Barack Obama’s health care law, opens for enrollment Oct. 1.

Officials expect about 1.3 million Minnesotans to apply for MNsure, including 300,000 who now lack health insurance.

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Minnesota is the only state to embrace all the components of the Affordable Care Act, as the state will expand the Medicaid program, develop an online insurance marketplace and offer a basic health program.

Earlier this month, state officials released the first look at health insurance plans and rates to be sold on MNsure. Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said Minnesota will offer the lowest average rates compared with the 17 other states that have released rates so far. Individual health insurance coverage will be available for as low as $91 a month beginning next year through the new health insurance marketplace.

Officials could not promise people will pay less compared to current coverage, but said they are confident customers will get more for their money.

MNsure will serve those who need to buy insurance on their own — those who do not have employer-supplied insurance or Medicare — and many Minnesotans who depend on government-funded health care.

In response to information Minnesotans provide, the website automatically will apply any available government aid to reduce premiums.

About half of an expected 1.3 million participants are expected to qualify for federal tax credits to help defray the cost. People can’t be kept from buying plans on the exchange due to pre-existing medical conditions, and there are caps on out-of-pocket costs for participants.

Five companies are selling a total of 141 individual, family and business plans on the exchange. The five companies are Blue Cross Blue Shield, HealthPartners, Medica, PreferredOne and UCare. Not all those insurers will be available to all Minnesotans, but residents in 85 percent of Minnesota counties will have three or more options to choose from. Every participant will have at least two insurers from which to choose.

“The low-cost range of prices allows consumers to consider the benefits of various plans, not just prices, as they choose their insurance,” Rothman said.

The lowest-cost option of $90.59 a month applies to a 25-year-old non-smoker who lives in the Twin Cities. The highest individual rate that’s listed in Commerce Department materials was $407.51 a month for a 60-year-old in the Twin Cities who opts for a “platinum” plan. The plans are divided into four categories — bronze, silver, gold and platinum, which are based on the percentage of an enrollee’s health costs that the plan will cover.

The rate structures are complicated and depend on participants’ ages, the number of people in their household and where they live.

Under the rate structure, a family of four with an annual household income below $31,300 would likely qualify for free health insurance. Free coverage would also extend to individuals earning between $15,000 and $17,000.

April Todd-Malmlov, the executive director of MNsure, said it would be difficult to make an “apples to apples” comparison between the price of plans on the exchange and that of current insurance plans. A chief goal of the exchange is to improve the quality of coverage in relation to the price and to reduce the cost of health insurance deductibles.

MNsure will also benefit consumers by letting them compare features of various plans, giving them more control over the shape of their coverage, Todd-Malmlov said.

Republican lawmakers, who unanimously opposed MNsure’s creation, seized on the fact that it might not mean across-the-board lower insurance rates for all participants.

“How does making health insurance more expensive encourage more people to get insured?” said Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska.

But Rep. Joe Atkins, the Inver Grove Heights Democrat who sponsored the House bill creating the exchange, compared it to grocery shopping.

“If you could get a whole lot more groceries for about the same price, you’re obviously going to do that,” Atkins said.